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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
"Letters to Malcolm and the Trouble with Narnia: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Their 1949 Crisis"

a.s.
Valinor


Jan 2 2008, 11:53am

Post #1 of 9 (840 views)
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"Letters to Malcolm and the Trouble with Narnia: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Their 1949 Crisis" Can't Post

This is a paper by Eric Seddon in the latest Mythlore. I found it very interesting and, while the conclusion may not be news to some here who are more knowledgable about Lewis (particularly), I thought I'd give a brief synopsis for the rest of us.

The falling-out that occurred between the two good friends can seem a little bit like a mystery to those of us trying to figure it out many years later. It's obvious a breach occurred, and we know from the Tolkien Letters that Tolkien disliked Narnia and some of Lewis' other writings.

Basically, Seddon makes a good case that the disagreement was brought about by Letters to Malcolm:


Quote

...On 11 November, 1964, almost a year after C.S. Lewis's death, Tolkien composed a letter to David Kolb, a Jesuit, wherein he wrote:

It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S.L.'s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his. Also, I personally found Letters to Malcolm a distressing and in parts horrifying work. I began a commentary on it, but if finished it would not be publishable. (Tolkien, Letters 352)


The abandoned commentary referred to has yet to be released publicly, but is entitled "The Ulsterior Motive" and has been quoted in excerpt by Humphrey Carpenter in his Tolkien biography. It is obviously a document of great interest to any discussion of the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, and would likely shed light onto the eventual dulling of their friendship. Yet even without direct access to the full text, the above letter provides a significant key to the door locked shut in 1949...A careful reading of both texts, with the crisis of 1949 kept in mind, yields some remarkable results, for Letters to Malcolm demonstrates the differences between the two men in the greatest relief. As such it acts as a clarifying lens through which to view Tolkien's experience of Narnia....




"Malcolm" contains much that can be regarded as anti-Catholic:



Quote
The end result is remarkable: such is the magic of fiction that this most relaxed, conversational, and open-ended book, in style and appearance, is actually Lewis's most sectarian and antagonistic in substance--a fact that would not have been lost on Tolkien or any other reflective Catholic of his generation.

In this carefully balanced literary structure, which is a monologue cast as one side of a dialogue, we find Lewis's most overtly Anglican work. It is filled with theological barbs--most of them aimed at Roman Catholicism. As such it provides us with the very clearest contrast between his and Tolkien's beliefs. Reading the book from the Roman Catholic perspective of Tolkien, it is not difficult to glean what aspects of it might have distressed and even horrified him. When investigated, they shed light on Tolkien's permanent rejection of Narnia...




Lewis goes on in "Malcolm" to dismiss curtly the devotion to "saints" and etc, causing this reaction from Tolkien (in his unpublished response called "The Ulsterior Motive", as quoted by Carpenter):



Quote

Needless to say, the issue discussed in the above passage would have struck Tolkien immediately. As a man who prayed the Rosary, and who recited the Confiteor (4) as a part of the Mass, Lewis's arrow would have hit its mark. As Tolkien was to relate in "The Ulsterior Motive," Lewis held strong opinions, contrary to his own, regarding devotions to the saints:

We were coming down the steps of Magdalen Hall [..] long ago in the days of our unclouded association, before there was anything, as it seemed, that must be withheld or passed over in silence. I said that I had a special devotion to St John. Lewis stiffened, his head went back, and he said in the brusque harsh tones which I was later to hear him use again when dismissing something he disapproved of: "I can't imagine any two persons more dissimilar." We stumped along the cloisters, and I followed feeling like a shabby little Catholic caught by the eye of an "Evangelical clergyman of good family" taking holy water at the door of a church. A door had slammed. (Carpenter, Inklings 51-52)


Letters to Malcolm continues in what must have felt like an onslaught against many of the things Tolkien held sacred. Lewis exhibits a contempt for "ready-made-prayers" as he calls them, showing deference to only the Lord's Prayer and extemporaneous verbal prayer. In letter twelve, he even speculates that those who "say their prayers" (i.e. repeating prayers learned in childhood) might be calling the irreligious part of their lives the religious part. Recitation of the Rosary, which Tolkien practiced, is thus obliquely dismissed. Adding insult to injury, though, was Lewis's labeling of such practices as childish.




I find it hard to argue with the conclusion that this incident (the publication of "Malcolm") was the specific breach that occurred, although there were probably some hints and smaller episodes of disagreement all along.

I also find it incredibly sad, however understandable.

Any other thoughts? I'm not knowledgable enough about Lewis in particular to make a counterargument, but it really seems persuasive to me.

a.s.

(PS: The Free Library, which has current Mythlore articles in it and in which I have been reading for the last several months, appears legitimate. Any of the librarians or writers on Torn have any other opinion? If it's not legit, I don't want to send links to it. Thanks.)

"an seileachan"

"Faith, hope, and charity--
These three.
But the greatest of these
Is charity.
~~~1 Corinthians 13:13


N.E. Brigand
Half-elven


Jan 2 2008, 6:37pm

Post #2 of 9 (665 views)
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"Letters to Malcolm" was published after Lewis died. [In reply to] Can't Post

So its publication can't be the occasion of the breach between Tolkien and Lewis. I haven't read Seddon's essay, but in the excerpt you provide, he seems to be saying that Malcolm is merely indicative of the religious difference of opinion that may have flared in earlier years.

Tolkien and Lewis certainly argued about other things. I don't have Tolkien's Letters here, but I remember an apologetic note to Lewis from the 1940s, which apparently followed Tolkien's harsh criticism at an Inklings meeting of a reading from Lewis's history of 16th Century literature.

By the way, the short excerpt from Tolkien's "The Ulsterior Motive" that Carpenter quotes in The Inklings, and you cite, was the subject of a brief comment by squire last year. I'll raise a question I asked at that time: how is Tolkien like and unlike St. John?

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entmaiden
Forum Admin / Moderator


Jan 2 2008, 7:17pm

Post #3 of 9 (639 views)
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I don't know how the timing works [In reply to] Can't Post

but maybe Tolkien saw a draft of "Letters to Malcolm". But I do tend to think that there wasn't one event that caused the end of the friendship. Tolkien and Lewis were great friends for a long time, and there were probably multple reasons they stopped being friends. Maybe one event was the breaking point.

Interesting article, a.s.! Smile

Each cloak was fastened about the neck with a brooch like a green leaf veined with silver.
`Are these magic cloaks?' asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.
`I do not know what you mean by that,' answered the leader of the Elves.


NARF since 1974.
Balin Bows

(This post was edited by entmaiden on Jan 2 2008, 7:17pm)


Elizabeth
Half-elven


Jan 2 2008, 7:29pm

Post #4 of 9 (655 views)
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About "ready-made prayers" [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
Letters to Malcolm continues in what must have felt like an onslaught against many of the things Tolkien held sacred. Lewis exhibits a contempt for "ready-made-prayers" as he calls them, showing deference to only the Lord's Prayer and extemporaneous verbal prayer. In letter twelve, he even speculates that those who "say their prayers" (i.e. repeating prayers learned in childhood) might be calling the irreligious part of their lives the religious part. Recitation of the Rosary, which Tolkien practiced, is thus obliquely dismissed. Adding insult to injury, though, was Lewis's labeling of such practices as childish.


It's surprising that Lewis should object to "ready-made" prayers as an Anglican, since Anglicans (and related groups such as the Episcopalians in the US) rely on prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, which is used (though in somewhat varying editions) world wide. "Common Prayer" in this context means "shared", and the Anglican Communion values the notion that many people join in these highly similar prayers. Many of them are direct translations of traditional Roman Catholic prayers, although many others were written after the break.

Also, Anglicans definitely honor and celebrate saints, although they aren't endowed with the same supernatural intercessory capabilities that Roman Catholics accept.

Lewis sounds more like a Methodist or Baptist here.




Son of Elizabeth in Frodo's tree
March, 2007


Elizabeth is the TORnsib formerly known as 'erather'


a.s.
Valinor


Jan 3 2008, 12:47am

Post #5 of 9 (634 views)
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OK, thanks. I read it again, more carefully :-) [In reply to] Can't Post

So let me say I still agree that it's a very good argument that disagreements of theology, first brought to a head during 1949's Inklings readings of Lion, Witch, Wardrobe, and later elucidated for Tolkien in Malcolm, were the crux of the matter.

Seddon appears to be saying that the deep division Tolkien felt between his own religious understanding and that of Lewis can be clearly seen in Malcolm and in Tolkien's "Ulsterior Motive" paper, but were present earlier and brought to a head in Tolkien's reaction to LWW.

It was a misinterpretation on my part to say that Malcolm caused the serious disagreements. It only makes them very clear, after the fact.

Here's Seddon's summation:



Quote

But there is another possibility, one which I consider the most likely solution, and which would speak volumes about Tolkien's character as a man if it was true. My belief is that Tolkien knew very well what the problem was; that upon analyzing Letters to Malcolm he had discovered the theological key to untangling many differences between himself and C.S. Lewis, including the problem with Narnia. This would explain the linking of the two in his letter to David Kolb in 1964. If so, he would have realized that in writing an essay response to Malcolm, he would have to expose the more Gnostic underpinnings of many of Lewis's beloved works. He would have to engage in what would seem a posthumous, ad hominem attack, which might in the end be regarded as nothing more than bitterness, contributing only to the posthumous dismantling of his friend's career in many Christians' eyes. If this was the case, and Tolkien did in fact unlock the problem with Narnia, then his silence on the subject was the final and most noble act of charity towards the man who had been his good friend for so long.

Regardless of these speculations, I think that at the very least it ought to be acknowledged, at last, that Tolkien's response on that spring day in 1949, wherein he told Lewis that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was unsalvageable, was not likely a reaction of mere jealousy or bitterness, but in all probability the result of something more profoundly disturbing, which he later charitably described as a "lack of sympathy" on his own part. It was unsalvageable because the very premise of Christ having an illusory body, and the shock waves such a premise would send through the rest of the theology of the book, was unsalvageable. In all likelihood, what he had really experienced was the incompatibility of Lewis's subjective Anglicanism with his own objective Catholicism. Like the anti-Catholic sideswipes littered throughout Letters to Malcolm, the heterodoxy of Narnia was something Tolkien couldn't accept, not because it seemed too quickly written or because it drew from so many sources, but because it simply didn't ring true.


"an seileachan"

"Faith, hope, and charity--
These three.
But the greatest of these
Is charity.
~~~1 Corinthians 13:13


a.s.
Valinor


Jan 3 2008, 12:52am

Post #6 of 9 (637 views)
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which St. John? [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm not clear on which St. John Tolkien felt an especial affinity for?

a.s.

"an seileachan"

"Faith, hope, and charity--
These three.
But the greatest of these
Is charity.
~~~1 Corinthians 13:13


Kimi
Forum Admin / Moderator

Jan 3 2008, 2:20am

Post #7 of 9 (630 views)
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St John the Evangelist. [In reply to] Can't Post

From "Letters" 309:

"...since I was born on the Octave of St. John the Evangelist, I take him as my patron...".

I remember this well, because I was once a winner in a Tolkien competition where this was one of the answers :-)




Promises to Keep: a novel set in 19th Century New Zealand.

The Passing of Mistress Rose

Do we find happiness so often that we should turn it off the box when it happens to sit there?

- A Room With a View


a.s.
Valinor


Jan 3 2008, 3:05am

Post #8 of 9 (658 views)
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thanks. I assume [In reply to] Can't Post

that the St. John discussed in the anecdote (the one where Tolkien says he felt slighted by Lewis' dismissal of any similarity between Tolkien and St. John) is John the Evangelist?

I only hesitate because it seems like two different things (or, possibly two different things): the statement that Tolkien had taken "St. John the Evangelist" as his patron and the subsequent discussion with Lewis about how he felt a special affinity for "St. John".

I thought maybe there was a statue of something of a St. John in that specific part of Magdelen, since he remembers this as occurring there...

But it's probably The Evangelist!

If so, I can think of one obvious difference and a few minor ones: first, John was a powerful proselytizer and went travelling around telling everyone about Jesus and converting many to the new faith; Tolkien was never a proselytizer and specifically avoided it in his writings.

Also, John was never married and (in tradition, anyway) was a virgin.

a.s.

"an seileachan"

"Faith, hope, and charity--
These three.
But the greatest of these
Is charity.
~~~1 Corinthians 13:13


Kimi
Forum Admin / Moderator

Jan 3 2008, 4:43am

Post #9 of 9 (686 views)
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You make a good point. [In reply to] Can't Post

I assumed (and you know what they say...) he was referring to his patron saint,especially since he "chose" this patron, but according to this page, Magdalen has many associations with St John the Baptist.

So what do you think Lewis might have meant by the differences if they were speaking of the Baptist?




Promises to Keep: a novel set in 19th Century New Zealand.

The Passing of Mistress Rose

Do we find happiness so often that we should turn it off the box when it happens to sit there?

- A Room With a View

 
 

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